Ohio Judge Overrules Voter Rejection of Higher Taxes

Published April 1, 1999

Although Ohio voters last year decisively rejected a proposal to hike taxes for increased education funding, the courts have demanded that state legislators there develop a new school funding formula to increase per-pupil spending and eliminate disparities between wealthy and poor districts. The Ohio General Assembly has until the end of the year to pass a new plan.

In response to a county court judge’s most recent ultimatum, two GOP lawmakers have proposed a constitutional amendment to remove the courts from school funding disputes.

Five years ago, on July 7, 1994, Judge Linton D. Lewis Jr. of the Perry County Common Pleas Court held that the state constitution required Ohio not only to provide “a thorough and efficient system of education,” but also to provide each district with the financial means to meet that goal. Lewis’ ruling came in response to a December 1991 lawsuit filed in Perry County on behalf of Dale R. DeRolph and others, alleging that the state’s 1982 school funding formula was unconstitutional.

An appeal of Lewis’ decision was rejected on March 24, 1997, by a 4-3 vote of the Ohio Supreme Court, which ruled that Ohio’s current school funding system was unconstitutional and gave the state one year to come up with a new plan.

Legislators responded with Issue 2, a ballot measure offered to voters last May, that would have authorized a $1.1 billion statewide sales tax hike to boost spending on public schools by $550 million and provide $550 million of property tax relief. The measure was decisively rejected by voters, by a 5-1 margin statewide and by a crushing 88 percent of voters in Perry County, where the original DeRolph complaint was filed.

Despite voters’ rejection of Issue 2, the state increased spending per student, provided larger subsidies for special education and transportation, approved all-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes in the early grades, and set aside more than $1.6 billion for building maintenance.

Lewis ruled on February 26 that the state’s efforts were not enough. The school funding formula was still unconstitutional, he concluded, and it continued “to rely upon voters to fund their schools.” Lewis proposed a two-fold remedy: raise spending on schools to improve school facilities and reduce the spending gap between poor and wealthy districts; and lower the reliance of school districts on local property taxes, thus blunting the ability of local taxpayers to reject higher taxes for schools.

Lewis’ decision “potentially places our taxes under the control of the courts,” taxpayer advocate Scott A. Pullins told the Columbus Dispatch. Pullins, executive director of the National Taxpayers Union of Ohio, said this “should be a wake-up call for Ohio taxpayers.” Lewis’ ruling could bring a total tax increase of more than $4 billion, according to the taxpayer group.

Lawmakers, too, expressed concerned over Lewis’ decision. State Senators Eugene Watts and Roy Ray responded with a plan for a constitutional amendment aimed at giving the state legislature, not the courts, exclusive responsibility for decisions about public education.

“Putting the fate of 11 million people in one state in the hands of one judge in Perry County is ridiculous,” the chairman of the Ohio Roundtable, David Zanotti, told the Cincinnati Inquirer.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

The Ohio Supreme Court’s March 1997 decision in DeRolph and a dissenting opinion are available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for old documents #2124807 (majority opinion, 20 pp.) and #2124808 (dissent, 18 pp.)